Is Legislature having second thoughts about Utah Lake dredging deal?

Committee votes along urban-rural lines to increase scrutiny of controversial ‘restoration’ project.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Lake on Wednesday, Jan. 26, 2022.

In the face of growing legal and financial concerns over massive dredging proposed for Utah Lake, lawmakers are looking to require broad legislative buy-in and new safeguards before the state transfers any land associated with a “restoration” project.

A divided House panel on Tuesday narrowly advanced a bill that subjects any “disposal” of lakebed, classified as “sovereign” state land that is to be managed for public benefit, to strict scrutiny to ensure the land transfer is both “fair” and “constitutionally” sound.

Rep. Keven Stratton, R-Orem, introduced HB240 in response to a proposal by a Utah company, Lake Restoration Solutions (LRS), that plans to spend $6.4 billion deepening the lake by 7 feet and ridding its waters of invasive fish and plants and creating 18,000 acres of artificial islands. It builds on a 2018 bill, HB272, that authorized the state to privatize land in and around the lake in exchange for “the comprehensive restoration of Utah Lake.”

LRS intends to sell real estate on the islands as a way to cover the massive costs of excavating the lake to ecological health.

“The winner here needs to be Utah Lake,” Stratton told the House Natural Resources, Agriculture and Environment Committee, which he chairs.

Stratton has serious reservations about the legality and financial viability of such an arrangement. Meanwhile, people and organizations are being asked to put up money toward a deal whose success depends entirely on a transfer of public land that might not ever happen.

“It’s important that we have this requirement here so that if they’re going to invest, they go with eyes open,” he said. “There is a legitimate question of whether, at this point, it’s even legal and constitutionally sound to do this. We need to put the world on notice of that so that there’s not detrimental reliance upon what the Legislature has approved.”

HB240 would allow a land transfer only if “the disposal is a fiscally sound and fair method of providing for the comprehensive restoration of Utah Lake and is constitutionally sound and legal.” That determination would be the work of lawmakers and the governor, who would have to memorialize these findings in a concurrent resolution.

Several committee members argued against the bill, wondering if by “changing the rules of the game,” it could derail Lake Restoration Solutions’ plans, which are currently under review by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and are angling for nearly $900 million in federal loans.

“My fear is we miss an opportunity to have the investment to save the lake,” said Rep. Phil Lyman, R-Blanding. ”I feel we had this discussion in 2018.”

The island-raising proposal has become a lightning rod of controversy in recent months, with many environmentalists and academic scientists organizing against it. Several hundred people rallied at the Capitol Monday evening, denouncing the project as a real estate scheme that would result in more environmental harm than benefit.

At Tuesday’s committee hearing, more than a dozen Utah County residents praised Stratton’s bill for raising the level of accountability and transparency associated with the LRS project.

Saratoga Springs resident Rich Foggio argued that the bill should go even further.

“We should not be considering giving away sovereign lands to those who merely have a plan that will promise anything,” Foggio said. “We should require proof and measurable results showing restoration and ecology improvements prior to giving away any sovereign lands. I suspect many of us in this room have been in situations where overpromising and underdelivering has made fools of everyone involved.”

Others wondered how anyone could object to increased transparency when such a precious public asset is at stake.

Yet six committee members voted to kill the bill. The 7-6 tally advancing it was split mostly along geographic lines with Wasatch Front representatives voting in support and rural representatives voting against.

A related bill sponsored by Rep. Brady Brammer, R-Pleasant Grove, would establish a Utah Lake Authority to exercise decision-making authority over lands within the historic waterline of the lake — 4,889 feet above sea level. HB232 would empower this new agency to sell or transfer land, setting up a potential conflict with Stratton’s bill.